Archive for the Thoughts about the Next Plane Category

The Church at the End of the World

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane with tags , , , on February 16, 2016 by onlookerslowdown

As a teacher, there are few things you can hear that are sadder than that a student of yours has passed away. I’m also a dad, and the idea that one of my children would ever pass away before I do is unthinkable. But as a teacher, I’ve always taken pride in the idea that the students I have worked with are now out in the world, bringing change and hope and excitement and passion to whatever they have decided to do. Now that I teach seniors, I give each of them my home e-mail on the last day of school, ask them to reach out if they need a recommendation for a scholarship, if they need advice about school, or just to let me know how college and life are treating them.

Last week I heard about the passing of a student who just graduated in the spring of 2015. Her name is Karla. She had missed some time during her senior year with some health issues, but she had worked hard, a lot harder than some of her classmates who missed no time at all, to make sure that she stayed up with her work. When she came back, she took a lot of pride in the progress that she had made — and she should have.

You never want to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t have to make up any platitudes to tell you that Karla was a very cool kid. She worked hard to improve her writing. She had a sweet disposition — not the sort of sweet that becomes a pushover, but the gentleness that you only see in people who are secure in themselves, who have already decided what kind of person they are and what they want to be. She did not have as many friends as some, but the ones that she had were clearly close friends to her.

But then another illness came and took her with it. And so I found myself heading to her funeral on a Monday morning, a time when churches are only open for sad occasions. No one gets married on a Monday morning. We only say good-bye to loved ones on a Monday morning.

The church is a little to the west of where I live, in a perplexing suburb of Dallas that sits less than 10 miles from the city center, called Cockrell Hill. The streets here are narrow, worn, cracked. The water tower could have been brought in from a tiny town in West Texas. When I finally found the turn-in for the church, which sits at the end of a bluff, the trees stretched off to the west, the February-brown branches blowing in that strange wind that, once you get west of the Trinity River in Texas, never really stops blowing. And so not 10 minutes from the downtown skyline of Dallas, I really was at a church in the middle of nowhere.

The yellow church and the patio before it told me that I was getting even further away from Dallas. When we go to say good-bye to our loved ones who have passed, I can see why the Greeks thought that there was a ferryman who would meet them, collect the souls, and then row away into a mist. I felt not four miles from my house, but hundreds, even thousands, and I felt that inimitable hourglass turn on its side as I went in for the ceremony.


Karla grew up in a family where everyone spoke Spanish; her funeral Mass was conducted in Spanish. I don’t speak very much Spanish at all, but the service reminded me of what going to church must have been like back in the era when the priests only spoke in Latin, so none of the people in the congregation had any idea what was going on. I prayed for Karla and for her family, but I was also taken by the priest’s occasional burst into song, which the congregation would follow, swelling into hymns that brought comfort in minor keys.


The apse of the church faces west, and on the day when I was at this funeral, each of those cubes you see was a vibrant blue, giving the etched-glass triptych the look of a gateway into the beyond, into the presence of whatever plane you think comes after this one. I believe in the gospel of Christ’s grace, but I have a feeling that the afterlife is going to be a bit different than what the legion generations of ministers have told us to expect.

On this day, I was sad, mourning Karla’s passing at such a young point in her life, sorrowful for the grief that clearly shook her friends and had her family weeping. There are some who like to step in at this point and talk about the beneficence of God’s plan and the greater glory that awaits her in God’s Kingdom, but for those of us who are still on this side of the door, losing someone hurts in a way that this sort of salve makes us want to punch, at least until the pain eases.

As the service progressed, though, in a tongue alien to me but so familiar to the rest in the church, I was struck by the way that, even though Karla is (the way I see it) home with her Father, there is still so much of her here. Her image — on the T-shirts that her family and friends had made and wearing. But most of all the mark that her spirit had made on all of us. So even if you envision (as I did) her spirit passing through that blue apse that looked less like the end of a church than the gateway to what is next, I could also see that so much of her was still here, will always be here, as long as we are here, and will be even after.

So when I left the service, I knew that for her family, and for those of her closest friends, grieving would continue. When I returned to school, I would notice the chair where she had sat last year, the table where she had done her writing, and where she had sat in thought before making those infrequent but insightful comments about what we were reading in class, what we were discussing, sometimes about nothing much at all, but still interesting to hear.

So I drove away from the middle of nowhere and slipped back into the city, those February-brown branches replaced more quickly than you would expect with the leafy green trees that live in that dark, rich soil on the other side of the Trinity.


Sunday Morning Questions

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane on July 16, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Why do people still go to church? After all, Sunday mornings are a lot easier if you just get out the waffle iron to feed the kids, peruse the thick Sunday paper (if your neighbors don’t steal if before you get up), and think languidly about an afternoon in the park.

A lot of people think this way, apparently, according to Ross Douthat’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times. He writes that, especially in liberal denominations, attendance is plummeting — 23 percent in the Episcopal Church over the last 10 years, for example. However, the conservative wing of the faith is not doing so well either.

On the conservative side of the church, we have the Southern Baptists, who have taken the bizarre step of adding a homemaking curriculum to their seminaries, so that women will learn how to cook and sew for their husbands. Too many churches have substituted praise bands for choirs and replaced pulpits with tall stools, to make things more homey (not necessarily a bad thing), but they have also substituted messages about personal growth and prosperity for teaching about the parts of the New Testament that are a little hairier than the Easter and Christmas messages. (The Old Testament? We don’t need that.)

On the liberal side of the church, over the past 50 years, the Episcopalians and their adherents have welcomed just about every type of theology and every trend that modern culture has brought along with it.

As a result, the distinctive message of Christianity is slowly vanishing. All you really need to understand the truth that is coming out of many churches — emergent or not — is a Nativity scene and a cross. The problem, of course, is that when these items become reduced to symbols, they are peers with every other symbol out there. Instead of piers that give us stability, they become trinkets.

Liberal theologian Gary Dorrien summarizes the crisis this way: “liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God’s holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good? When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship.”

But back to my earlier question. Why should we go to church? I can meet my friends in other places, at more convenient times. I can do volunteer work whenever I want. There has to be a pressing reason for me to roust the family, throw them into the car, and head to that building with a steeple on it.

We can make the Church emergent if we want. We can turn it into a network of coffee houses, or a giant megabuilding with huge parking lots, or a series of homes. But the venue won’t matter if what happens inside isn’t about the truth.

It can be relevant to our lives. It can make us feel better. It might even challenge us for 15 minutes, until the pastor gives us the answer. It might even warm our hearts.

Guess what? We can find all of that on television. We don’t need the Church to do that.

Instead, we need the Church to teach us the way of Christ. We need the Church to show us the gospel. As we grow in the faith, we need to start teaching others these things.

This doesn’t involve judgment, or dusty questions of arcane doctrine. Jesus didn’t have much to say about postmillennial or premillenial tribulationism, or soteriology, as you might have noticed. He called people to live according to the truth — and when people were around Him, they didn’t have a hard time figuring out what that meant.

It does involve a set of distinctive ways of living, and of believing. When we lose that distinctiveness, we are no longer the Church. When we try to be like everyone else, we end up being like the Southern Baptists, who managed to hold decades of worship services without ever confronting the wrongs of slavery or Jim Crow. We end up being like the giant megachurches, who fill their seats regularly for the weekly motivational speech, without transforming many lives. We end up being like the Episcopalians, who have lost none of the pageantry of worship, but who seem to have lost all of the rationale.

If we want the Church to do these things for us, though, we have to be willing to do them for the Church, and in the Church. Because, in the final analysis, the Church isn’t another movie theater or cable channel. It is what we make it, in our clumsy attempts to worship God.

And that is why we go.

Happy Easter 2012…and a word from John Updike

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane on April 6, 2012 by onlookerslowdown
The week before Palm Sunday, one of the ministers at our church began her sermon with the observation that Methodists hate talking about sin. Her voice showed her nervousness at broaching the topic, and during her homily, she compared it to the dust that we have to wipe up during spring cleaning.
Her nervousness was understandable — after all, we Methodists are about social work, about changing the world, about bridging the gaps between one another so that God’s love can shine upon us all. It is that love, we believe, that will draw us all toward the cross. When we talk about sin, the specters of judgment and those television preachers with their Bibles held high, hollering about brimstone, come to mind. Judgment raises barriers, after all.
But there is a difference between judgment and acknowledgment. No matter what your religious beliefs are, you can’t say that evil does not exist. You can’t say that people do not do horrible things to one another. Maybe you can say that you have never done anything awful, but I can’t say that about myself. I have to acknowledge and banish, on a daily basis, my imperfections, so that I do not go running after them.
Sin is awful. It is the black mold that eats away at souls — it can be so hard to scrub away that we just let it sit there and grow. It is the one weed in your rose garden that, every Saturday morning when you go outside to take a look, is already working its way toward your prize Texas Beauty. It is that crack that appears above your bedroom doorway one morning, showing the malaise in your foundation as it scornfully works its way up your wall.
And it is real. It chases all of us, because God’s adversary wants all of us to be as miserable as he is. He offers to distract us, sympathize with us, befriend us. He even tried it with Jesus, out in the desert.
But it is not a tool. It is not a weapon that we use to judge each other. It is not a microscope that we use to analyze the lives of others. It is not a can of red paint that we throw upon those whom we find distasteful. It is a tarry, dark filth that, once it coats a person or a thing, becomes transparent and even shiny — and to some, it even becomes an invitation. Because the temptations within sin call out to all of our weaknesses.
We need to fight sin. But we don’t need to fight each other to fight it. Too many churches grasp either the first sentence, or the second sentence, but almost no churches grasp both of them at the same time. The problem is that you have to be able to deal with BOTH sentences at the same time to honor the teachings of Christ.
The beauty of Easter is that, in the spring, we are reminded that there is a way out of sin. There is no way to keep God’s adversary from coming after us, but we have the overwhelming love of God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and with the comfort of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of hope that, if we believe in Jesus’ defeat of His adversary, and of death itself, a better life awaits us — as the Methodists say, “the life everlasting.” This is what grace offers us — as Mrs. Onlooker Slowdown so wisely says, without grace, we all will end up alone. Far better to end up in God’s country.
So, this Easter, focus on the cross…and the empty tomb. Don’t think about the other people in your row. Don’t think about all the people you don’t like. Don’t think about the stewardship campaign, even if your pastor brings it up. Don’t think about politics, or self-help, or any of the other nonsense that too many pastors have painted onto the cross. Don’t think about judgment, because those days are past.
They have been. For over 2000 years now. He is risen…indeed.
This poem is one of the most powerful meditations about the truth of Easter. Enjoy…and have a wonderful Easter Sunday.
Seven Stanzas At Easter
By John Updike
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valvedheart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regatheredout of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Calvin and Hobbes…and Whitney Houston

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane on February 19, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

There are two reasons to read the Sunday paper: the extended sports coverage and the funnies. (Yes, I’ve been told the funnies are really the comics, but I still call them the funnies). One of my favorite strips involved a discontented young boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, who would come to life, at least in Calvin’s imagination, whenever no one else was in the room. In one series of strips, Calvin turns an old refrigerator box into a duplicator and pretends that he has made a bunch of copies of himself. Running this ruse on his teacher and his mother leads to wrath in just about every area of his life.

As they are sitting in time out, boy and tiger ruminate a bit:

Calvin Well, Hobbes, I guess we learned a valuable lesson from the duplicating mess.
Hobbes And that is?
Calvin And that is, um… it’s that, well… OK, so we didn’t learn any big lesson. Sue me.
Hobbes Live and don’t learn, that’s us.

(Source: The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes)

This is the central problem that all of us face, whether we are seven years old or seventy — if we do not learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others, then things never get better.

I’ve read posts from a lot of really angry people in the last day or two, about the fanfare given to the passing of Whitney Houston. Most of these mad people talk about how she was a crackhead and a drug addict, and that she really just wasted her talents. Instead of lowering the flags to half-mast, as the state of New Jersey did, and having a nationally broadcast funeral, as several channels and many online news feeds provided for us, these people seem to think that Whitney should have been buried in a pine box in a lonely field, or perhaps dumped into the Indian Ocean, like Osama bin Laden.

For better or for worse, though, we are a culture of celebrity. Which is why, yesterday afternoon, my wife had a television tuned to Whitney Houston’s funeral. I wasn’t really paying any attention until I heard some of the eulogy, given by the Rev. Marvin Winans. Here’s the whole thing — parts of it are worth watching and thinking about.

Rev. Winans had a lot to say about grace and forgiveness, but he also said something that, while just true as his message about grace, should make us pay much better attention to the way we spend our time. He said:

“The lives we live are the gift we give to God.”

Did Whitney Houston give the best gift to God that she could have? Probably not. But do you think that, when she was a nine-year-old girl dreaming about her future, that she looked forward to a life of Bobby Brown and narcotics? Probably not, either.

So, once those of you who are angry are done dancing on her grave, go and think about what you are spending your time on the planet preparing for your Maker to see. If your belief system doesn’t include an afterlife, what kind of legacy are you building for those behind you to remember? For your children to aspire to?

This was a hard lesson for Onlooker Slowdown. Reading about one of the greatest vocal talents of our time dying far too soon and leaving far too much talent on the table definitely gave me pause. Moving forward from Rev. Winans’ eulogy, it occurred to me that I will never look back and wish I’d watched more television. Or complained more about the everyday annoyances of being a responsible person. Or spent more time thinking about myself.

So, after you read this, get off the computer. Go call your mom. Go give your kid a noogie, and then run away in the opposite direction. Kiss the one you love the most. Then go pick up that talent that you can do so well, that you just can’t find the time to spend time doing. And shoot your television. Whitney’s voice came straight from God’s own choir — but each of us has a great thing that we were made to do, but each day that goes by is one less day that we can bring Him glory by doing it.